Wanting to meet fast-changing business needs without wasting money and time recruiting new employees, Turner Industries is among many Baton Rouge companies focusing its training efforts on a ready pool of talent: Its own workers.
Ray Neck, Turner’s workforce development director, has become something of an expert securing the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s Incumbent Worker Training Program grant money—which, this year, totals $850,000—having done so eight times. By applying this year, Turner promised two outcomes: Increased wages for some 700 existing employees who gain new skills and knowledge from a number of training programs conducted by Associated Builders and Contractors, LSU Continuing Education and Turner itself; and the creation of 70 jobs for new employees as retrained workers shift roles.
Each time it receives the IWTP grant, the company forks over an estimated $100,000 to cover all the classes it wants to offer. It’s a small sacrifice, says Neck, considering the payoff that comes after retaining skilled labor and making them more valuable.
“If they do this for us, we want to stick with them,” Neck says.
The situation happens across Baton Rouge. A ballooning demand for skills—ranging from cloud computing and cybersecurity to pipefitting and welding—outpaces the existing supply, pushing employers to invest in their current workforce … and quickly.
At the same time, automation infiltrates different industries, ushering in new eras like “Manufacturing 4.0” and others. The ubiquitous threat of competition also looms: Could Company X’s employee pick up and move across the street to Company Y?
All of which makes “upskilling” an increasingly attractive practice for Baton Rouge companies. Employers want to cultivate and retain a steady base of adaptable workers who are well-equipped to fill new roles as they emerge across multiple sectors.
To some, habitually teaching new skills to current employees might seem an obvious move. But it can be more complicated than that, and many executives—viewing the retraining process as slow, costly and limiting—tend to favor the more disruptive alternatives of layoffs and buyouts, or simply neglect to implement the new skill or technology altogether.
However, in today’s tight job market, such strategies aren’t sustainable. Upskilling has become an essential and recurring business decision, suggesting society needs to recalibrate its expectations for worker retraining.
What’s at stake
For many local companies, the need to improve their retraining of existing workers comes from an industrywide labor shortage. Finding a new employee at Worley costs the company—formerly known as Jacobs Engineering—between $600 and $3,000, estimates Workforce Development Manager Joshua Callegan. That’s compared to an average $1 to $2 hourly wage increase an employee receives after upgrading their skills in some way.
To keep who they already have, Worley follows a three-tiered, “hire to retire” approach by 1) immediately identifying the skills a worker already has and closing any gaps in necessary knowledge; 2) incrementally promoting the worker through a “helper training” program; and 3) getting the worker certified in multiple crafts related to his or her current certification, making them more marketable and able to stay on a particular construction job longer.
“It’s not like it was 30 years ago, when we had people waiting at the gate,” Callegan says. “Once we find somebody, we want to hold onto them.”
Other companies like IBM are in the throes of a nonstop digital revolution that requires its workers to regularly expand their skill sets. If they want to stay ahead, the process must happen often. While employees at the firm’s downtown Baton Rouge client innovation center are learning how to navigate different cloud technologies from Red Hat (acquired by IBM last month), they’re also training in design thinking, agile and garage, on top of honing non-tech skills like client engagement and presentations.
“Maybe [upksilling] happened once or twice in a lifetime 50 years ago, but now it’s once or twice a year,” says Charles Masters, IBM senior vice president of client innovation centers, who lives in Baton Rouge.
Aiming to prepare Baton Rouge workers for “new collar jobs,” IBM offers several programs for future employees, including its apprenticeship and P-TECH programs.
But it’s often more difficult for companies to determine their own workers’ talents, making employers somewhat hesitant to so freely invest resources—including time, money and commitment—into upskilling.
Surely, it takes time; people normally don’t move from one position to the next in a fiscal year, much less in a quarter. Sometimes, employers are tempted to go through the quicker process of hiring a contract worker, even if they’re more expensive. However, workforce development leaders caution that’s a shortsighted approach, pointing to various local resources companies can use instead.
“If we don’t train the current workforce in these skills, we’ll have to import talent, like we did in the IT sector,” says Paul Helton, executive director of workforce development for Louisiana Economic Development.
Employers don’t have to come up with a curriculum on their own, says Helton, who oversees LED FastStart, recognized by Business Facilities magazine as the best state workforce development program in the country. Through the incentive program, qualified companies receive customized employee recruitment, screening, training development and training delivery for eligible, new or expanding companies, all for free.
Something else employers might not realize is that they can use state facilities as sites for upskilling workers. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System often partners with LED FastStart, leaning on the program for curriculums and equipment to lower employers’ costs.
More than 100 local and regional companies sent their employees for training at LSU last year, says Sasha Thackaberry, LSU’s vice provost of digital and continuing education. The university also offers 15 professional development certificate programs, with a few more—including certificates in DevOps and construction management—slated to come in the near future.
Meanwhile, BRCC offers a corporate workforce training program where either a contract administrator or subject matter expert assesses a business, analyzes employee expectations and determines gaps between the two, implementing a customized training program for the business.
Of course, getting employee buy-in can also be a challenge.
“The challenge is to make the content meaningful to the employee, and easily understandable,” says Jim Hudson, plant manager of Honeywell’s Baton Rouge facility, which has used BRCC’s program to train new plant workers with different machinery. “Everybody learns differently.”
In his years overseeing BRCC’s program, Girard Melancon says clients have ranged from Ochsner to Coca-Cola to Mapp Construction.
They have all seen their efforts pay off, he says, noticing business productivity gains, increased employee morale, the ability to pay larger wages and greater operational efficiency. Plus, training on-site at BRCC is often safer than doing so at the company’s facility, and less costly if an accident were to occur.
Oftentimes, says Melancon, employers overlook yet another important fact: Workers are always at risk of going to work for the competition.
“It keeps Baton Rouge’s companies on the cutting edge,” Melancon says. “Besides dealing with the competition in Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, a lot of these companies are also competing at global level. They like to retain their knowledge.”